Brief History of Reuben Sandwich

The Reuben Sandwich

by Jim Rader, Merriam-Webster Inc.

The deficient documentation of food terms is a serious issue if you want to go beyond folklore and get at some real history. But I know the evidence is out there. I got an object lesson back in 1989 when I got in a tussle with an Omaha newspaper columnist over the origin of "Reuben sandwich". The tussle began when R.G. Cortelyou, an Omaha resident, sent me the July 24, 1989, column by Robert McMorris in the "Omaha World-Herald". McMorris had read the etymology of "Reuben sandwich" in the "Random House College Dictionary", which read "after Arnold Reuben (1883-1970), U.S. restaurateur who first created it." Random House, it turned out, had trod on a local legend (not by my foot--the etymology was written before my tenure at Random House).

According to Omaha lore, the combination of rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut had been dreamed up in 1925 to feed participants in a late-night poker game at the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Omaha by a local grocer, Reuben Kulakofsky. Charles Schimmel, the hotel's owner, was so taken with the sandwich that he put it on the hotel restaurant menu, designated by its inventor's name. Fern Snider, a one-time waitress at the Blackstone, entered the Reuben in a national sandwich competetion in 1956; her entry won--hence one of the earliest pieces of documentation for the name of the sandwich, an OED cite from 1956 from the food services journal "Institutions".

In a reply to Mr. Cortelyou I questioned the existence of Reuben Kulakofsky outside of Omaha folklore and challenged him to come up with evidence documenting an Omaha origin for the Reuben sandwich. Cortelyou--not very ethically to my mind--sent my letter without my permission or knowledge to McMorris, who pilloried me in his column for Aug. 23 ("Amazing. The man admittedly knows nothing about the Reuben, but he has doubts about Reuben Kulakofsky, somehow equating him with folklore figures like Paul Bunyan. One wonders how Rader feels about the Earl of Sandwich.") To my delight, though, he challenged his readers to come up with evidence for the sandwich ("Any of you out there have older Blackstone menus that document the Reuben's existence?").

One of McMorris's readers produced a Depression-era menu--though datable only by its reference to "world confusion" and exaggerated pessimism," as a sort of apology for the sumptuous decor--from the Plush Horse, a newly opened restaurant in the Blackstone Hotel that offered under sandwich specialties a "Rueben" [sic] for 50 cents. Another reader produced a menu containing the sandwich from the coffee shop of the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska, which was actually dated: October 9, 1937. McMorris stated in his column of Sept. 13 that he planned to send copies of this material to me. Unfortunately, he never came through, despite a couple of pleading letters on my part.

Mr. Cortelyou, who initially provoked the exchange, did some research on his own, however. He sent me a copy of a menu from the Plush Horse held in the library of the Douglas County Historical Society. The "Rueben" (same spelling as above) is now 60 cents. This menu too is undated but a note at the bottom states "All prices are our ceiling prices or below. By O.P.A. regulation, our ceilings are based on our highest prices from April 4 to 10, 1943." The Office of Price Administration, which regulated prices during World War II, ceased operations in 1946, so it is probably safe to date the menu from somewhere in the period 1943-46 (assuming prices were raised as soon as regulations were lifted). This is the earliest attestation of at least a variant of "Reuben (sandwich)" that I have in hand.

Another item Cortelyou sent me was a copy of an obituary for Reuben Kulakofsky that appeared in the "Omaha World-Herald". Kulakofsky, who had been co-owner of a wholesale grocery, the Central Market, died in Omaha on March 6, 1960, at the age of 86. The obituary says nothing about the Reuben sandwich.

In a letter sent directly to McMorris, I relented and said that Random House would change its etymology to reflect Reuben Kulakofsky's role as the probable originator of the sandwich. In retrospect, I think this was a hasty decision. At the time, I had not really examined Arnold Reuben's claim.

Arnold Reuben, a German immigrant, opened his first restaurant in New York at 802 Park Ave. ca. 1908 (sources differ on the exact year); he relocated to Broadway and 82nd St. several years later, to Broadway and 73rd St. (near the Ansonia Hotel) in 1916, and to 622 Madison Ave. in 1918. In 1935, the formal opening of Reuben's Restaurant at 6 East 58th St. was attended by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Reuben's Restaurant remained at this location until 1965 or 1966. The "N.Y. Times" columnist Marian Burros recalled the decor in a Jan. 11, 1986, column: "Italian marble, gold-leaf ceiling, lots of walnut paneling and dark red leather seats--to a small-town girl it was the quintessential New York restaurant."

Burros recalled the apple pancakes and cheesecake, but she says nothing about Reuben sandwiches. About 1964, Reuben sold his interest in the restaurant to Harry L. Gilman and retired to Palm Beach. He died Dec. 31, 1970, at the age of 87. His obituary in the "Times" (Jan. 1, 1971) contains most of the above information, but says nothing about Reuben sandwiches. The restaurant's offerings are described as follows:

The after-theater diner typically orders one of the outsized sandwiches or may have the house specialty -- cheese cake. Or he may order one of Reuben's more ambitious sandwiches which bears the name of a show business celebrity. Chopped-liver connoisseurs favor Reuben's. Its Jewish delicacies include matzoth-ball soup and borscht.

I have not pieced together all of the subsequent history of the restaurant, but by the early 1980's it was on the corner of 38th St. and Madison Ave.; the current Manhattan phonebook gives its address as 244 Madison Ave.

Arnold Reuben had a son, Arnold Jr., who worked in the restaurant from ca. 1930 to the time of the 58th St. place's closing in 1965/66. I have not been able to determine if Arnold Jr. retained any relation with the restaurant afterward, though he was associated with a firm that sold by mail-order "Arnold Reuben Jr.'s Cheesecakes, A Slice of New York" into the early '90's. Arnold Jr. died in Seminole, Florida, on May 30, 1997, at the age of 88 (obit in "St. Petersburg Times", June 1, 1997).

Now to the origin stories. In 1976, Craig Claiborne in the "N.Y. Times" "De Gustibus" column queried his readers about the origin of the Reuben sandwich. The replies were summarized in his May 17 column. The Omaha origin was given more serious consideration, though Reuben Kulakofsky was identified as "Reuben Kay." (Probably via the Claiborne article this name found its way into the "Webster New World" 3rd ed. etymology of "Reuben sandwich"; according to another McMorris "Omaha World-Herald" column (Jan. 31, 1986), Reuben and various other members of the Kulakofsky clan were sometimes referred to by the first letter of their surname.) However, Claiborne also printed extracts from a letter from Patricia R. Taylor of Manhattan, the daughter of Arnold Reuben Sr. (and presumably brother of Arnold Jr.), part of which runs as follows:

I would like to share with you the story of the first Reuben's Special and what went into it. The year was 1914. Late one evening a leading lady of Charlie Chaplin's came into the restaurant and said, "Reuben, make me a sandwich, make it a combination. I'm so hungry I could eat a brick." He took a loaf of rye bread, cut two slices on the bias and stacked one piece with sliced baked Virginia ham, sliced roast turkey, sliced imported Swiss cheese, topped it off with cole slaw and lots of Reuben's special Russian dressing and the second slice of bread.... He served it to the lady who said, "Gee, Reuben, this is the best sandwich I ever ate. You ought to call it an Annette Seelos Special." To which he replied, "Like hell I will. I'll call it a Reuben's Special."

The most interesting thing about this story is that the "Reuben's Special" is not a Reuben sandwich, though it has certain features thereof: it includes meat, some form of cabbage, and cheese. During the Reuben sandwich debate with McMorris, one of his researchers phoned Reuben's Restaurant in Manhattan and was told that the restaurant carried both a "Reuben's Special"--described exactly as Ms. Taylor described it--and a Reuben, described as "corned beef, sauerkraut, and melted cheese" (McMorris "World-Herald" column of July 27, 1989).

This would seem to settle the matter in favor of the Nebraskans--the sandwich created in New York is connected to the Nebraskan sandwich by onomastic coincidence--were it not for a story told late in his life by Arnold Reuben Jr., who himself claimed credit for the sandwich's origin. As related to the "St Petersburg Times" (Dec. 1, 1993),

The sandwich, he [Arnold Jr.] says, goes back to the 1930's. The restaurant, which his father founded in 1915 [sic!], was open 24 hours a day, and the younger Reuben worked from noon until 3 or 4 in the morning. He didn't take time to sit down to eat. He had too many customers.

So every day, Reuben asked the chef to make him a hamburger. One day, chef Alfred Scheuing said he was sick of seeing Reuben eating the hamburger.

The chef said, "I've made some nice, fresh corned beef." He layered slices onto Russian dark pumpernickel bread, which he had buttered and toasted. Then Scheuing said, "Let's see what we can do now to make it tastier," adding Swiss cheese.

The chef also had a huge pot of fresh sauerkraut, which he made the sandwich's finishing touch.

I suppose that if Reuben had told this story about his father, it would be family folklore. The fact that he makes himself a participant means that it is either truth or (charitably) very faulty memory. The only thing that could possibly validate it would be evidence from old Reuben's Restaurant menus attesting to the antiquity of the corned beef-Swiss cheese-sauerkraut Reuben (as opposed to the Reuben Special).

For the moment, based on the menus, I must favor the Nebraskan origin, though there is one quite significant thing about the Reuben Kulakofsky story that gives me pause. According to Kulakofsky's obituary, services were held for him "at the Beth El Synagogue." He "was active for many years in Jewish circles." Kulakofsky was born in Lithuania and emigrated with his family in 1890. "He was one of four sons and two daughters of the late Lazar Gershon Kulakofsky." So Kulakofsky was most likely a practicing Jew; his cultural background was unquestionably Jewish. Would this man have improvised a sandwich mixing meat and a dairy product? Even if he didn't eat the sandwich himself, would such a thoroughly goyish concoction have naturally occurred to him as a treat for his poker partners? After all, he was, as far as we know, a grocer, not a chef.

I suppose the same objection might be made about Arnold Reuben, though I really know nothing about the details of his ethnic background. To be sure, a man who supposedly created a sandwich containing both ham and cheese, as he did in his daughter's retelling, was most likely not an observant or even ethnic Jew. Despite a possibly Ashkenazic surname, and the fact that his restaurant served some New York Jewish deli-style dishes, Arnold Reuben may not have been Jewish or may have lost all his Jewish roots. The fact that his son was also named Arnold certainly does not suggest Jewishness; as far as I know, it is not the norm for Americans of even weakly felt Jewish heritage to name a child after a living relative. If I am wrong about this, may someone correct me.

How much evidence is there, really, for the Kulakofsky story? As far as I know, neither Reuben himself nor anyone in his family ever took credit for the sandwich. McMorris claimed, in "World-Herald" columns of Jan 31, 1986, and several columns of August and September, 1989, that Ed Schimmel, the manager of the Blackstone Hotel, told him the story personally in 1965, and told a Chicago radio talk show host the story on Feb. 28, 1968. Of course, Schimmel was not a participant in the 1920's poker games--he was relating a story told him by his father, Charles, who was a participant. No one who was actually there tells the story firsthand. McMorris (column of Sept. 7, 1989) quotes one Louise Ware, who was a niece of Harvey Newbranch, a one-time editor of the "World-Herald":

"My Uncle Harvey played regularly in those poker games at the Blackstone," Mrs. Ware said. "One time when I was visiting him he asked the cook to make sandwiches 'like we have at the Blackstone poker parties.' He gave her the recipe. "I don't remember what he called the sandwich, but it was definitely a Reuben because the ingredients were the same--corned beef, sauerkraut, and so forth."

She said she was equally sure of the year, 1922 [not 1925 as in Schimmel's account--JLR] because: "I was living in Nebraska City then, and I had to come to Omaha to buy clothes for my first year of college. That's a date you remember."

Note that in this version the sandwich exists, but is unnamed, and there is no mention of Reuben Kulakofsky.

The first actual--or at least reported--documentation of "Reuben (sandwich)", as mentioned above, is a menu not from Omaha, but rather from the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1937. This meshes with the first cite in Merriam files, from a "Hotel Cornhusker" menu, Lincoln, Neb., which described the "Reuben" as "corned beef, Sauer Kraut, Swiss cheese on Russian Rye"; the first date on the cite slip is Jan. 19, 1956. Interestingly, Robert McMorris reported (column of Sept. 1, 1989) that an unnamed caller on a local radio talk show claimed that the Cornhusker Hotel was indeed the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich.

So what do I conclude about the etymologies of "Caesar salad" and "Reuben sandwich"? "Caesar salad" does seem to be named after Caesar Cardini; if it isn't, we are looking at a very elaborate hoax and many hoodwinked people. As for "Reuben sandwich", I'll stick with "probably" after Reuben Kulakofsky for now, but I have serious misgivings. I hope more evidence shows up. Those old menus are out there somewhere. I suspect the real history of the Reuben sandwich has yet to be written.